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Johan de Witt (1625-1672), Grand Pensionary of Holland. (Public domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Johan de Witt: The Failed Politician who was Cannibalized by his Opponents

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Even after a successful political career, Johan de Witt has gone down in history for having suffered one of the most bizarre assassinations in history and one of the few recorded cases of cannibalism from the 17th century . A key figure in Dutch politics, Johan de Witt rose to become Prime Minister, or Grand Pensionary, for the Dutch Republic in 1653.

Taking his seat during what historians dubbed the “Dutch Golden Age” was always going to have its risks, but the Dutch Republic was far more dangerous than de Witt had likely bargained for and he soon came to find he had bitten off more than he could chew. Even after being re-elected a total of three times, he was attacked by an angry mob who ripped him apart and eat his remains.

The Early Life of Johan de Witt

De Witt was born into an illustrious family on September 24th, 1625. His father was mayor of their home town, Dordrecht, and his background meant he was likely to succeed in whatever path he chose to take. Having studied mathematics, and essentially writing one of the first texts in what we know as analytical geometry, the future seemed bright for Johan de Witt.

Following in his father’s footsteps, he strongly opposed the House of Orange, an aristocratic princely dynasty also known as the House of Nassau. Along with the Republican merchant class, he joined in the conflict against the monarchists which had been active for many years and showed no signs of slowing down.

Johan de Witt (1625-1672), Grand Pensionary of Holland . ( Public domain )

Power, Politics and Johan de Witt as Grand Pensionary

When de Witt took power, due not only to his intelligence but also to his riding on the coattails of his father, the United Provinces were at war with England and France, a tumultuous time for the predecessor state to the Netherlands. Amsterdam was the lynchpin of world trade and Asian routes of commerce were controlled by the Dutch East India Company, making the Dutch Republic one of the most influential powers in all of Europe.

Despite the varied political issues with other European countries, de Witt used his political proficiency to negotiate peace talks. He also competently set England and France against one another, the Dutch Republic’s two fiercest enemies. Meanwhile, de Witt vehemently opposed the Orange monarchy and stopped the Prince of Orange from gaining any political hold in his territory. In fact, throughout his reign as the Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt had maintained his opposition to the Oranges which would eventually be significant in his downfall.

The Brothers De Witt in Prison by Simon Opzoomer. (Public domain)

The Brothers De Witt in Prison by Simon Opzoomer. ( Public domain )

The Franco-Dutch War Led to the Downfall of Johan de Witt

The struggle between France and the Dutch Republic eventually came to a head, and the Franco-Dutch war broke out against Louis XIV of France . The cause was the fact that both countries had major league interests in maintaining control of the seas. In 1665, Johan de Witt managed to keep control of his maritime interests, but by 1672 the war was raging and for Johan de Witt it was to be a disastrous year.

England and France, the two main enemies of the Dutch Republic, managed to invade with very little effort or obstruction due to the lack of a Dutch land army. The Dutch people suffered many casualties as a result and de Witt was touted as the reason for this failure, due to the belief that de Witt had failed to bolster the land army and instead had focused his attention predominately on the navy.

To the citizenry, this failure demonstrated the waning power and lack of effective leadership of Johan de Witt, to whom they had entrusted authority for almost 20 years. Things had finally turned sour.

William III took advantage of Johan de Witt’s demise. (Public domain)

William III took advantage of Johan de Witt’s demise. ( Public domain )

William III and the Tragic Lynching of Johan de Witt

William III swept in and took advantage of the fall of Johan de Witt. In response, the people called for William III of the House of Orange to succeed him, seeing William as a stronger leader more able to defend the Dutch against their enemies. To demonstrate his new-found faculties, William III had Johan de Witt’s brother Cornelius tried for treason. He was subsequently subjected to torture and imprisoned at the Gevangenpoort.

With his power in tatters after having been forced to resign, Johan went to visit Cornelius in prison at the Hague on August 20th, 1672. Unwittingly he walked straight into a trap. At the prison, an organized lynch mob awaited his arrival. “Everyone wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero and tear off a shred from his garments,” wrote the French writer, Alexander Dumas, in The Black Tulip .

The mob broke into the prison and accosted the two brothers. Dragging them into the streets, they hung them by their feet in the city’s public gibbet, one of the most humiliating forms of punishment and execution of the 17th Century. “After having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped naked the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked bodied to the extemporized gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them by their feet,” wrote Dumas.

The frenzied mob then literally ripped the brothers apart. According to Dumas: “Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who had not dared to strike the living flesh. Cut the dead piece, and then went about town selling small slices of the bodies of Johan and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.”

The murder of Johan de Witt and his brother as depicted by Pieter Fris. Source: Public domain

The murder of Johan de Witt and his brother as depicted by Pieter Fris. Source: Public domain

The Untimely Demise of Johan de Witt: Cannibalism in the Dutch Republic

Legend has it that the mob ripped the flesh from the bodies and began selling and eating the remains. Limbs and clothes belonging to the brothers were apparently sold to bystanders in auctions, while pieces of the bodies were proudly put on display in pubs. Believe it or not, some of Johan’s and Cornelius’ body parts still survive today and are preserved in the Historical Museum of The Hague where the prison gates stand.

A box of relics was seemingly put together by de Witt supporters containing a finger and tongue belonging to Johan de Witt, alongside a poem and other documents. Most notably, the box also contains a picture of the murders, giving some credence to the events that took place in this story.

What began as a successful career ended in one of the most brutal assassinations of a political figure in European history. The veracity of the story of Johan de Witt and his cannibalistic end at the end of pro-Orangists has been questioned. Arguably, French contemporaries may have written the story as a cautionary tale to their opponents.

Top image: The Corpses of the De Witt Brothers by Jan de Baen . ( Public domain )

By Tracy McLoughlin



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